Wednesday 11 December 2019

A united France looks more than ever like a divided one

Armed French soldiers stand in front of a Synagogue during a visit of French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve after an attack in front of a Jewish school in Marseille's 9th district. Photo: Reuters
Armed French soldiers stand in front of a Synagogue during a visit of French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve after an attack in front of a Jewish school in Marseille's 9th district. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

The glossy campaign adorns billboards and metro stations across Marseille, France's second largest city and one of its most diverse. My baguette from a local boulangerie even came wrapped in paper displaying the campaign logo this week.

'For 2016, let us be united', it reads grandly above a map of France composed of scores of images of individual people, supposedly French citizens.

A closer look reveals that this purported representation of France united is a rather homogenous one. There are few faces that are not white, for example, and none that explicitly show a French Muslim - say a woman wearing the hijab or headscarf - despite France being home to Europe's largest Muslim population, many of whom live in this port city shaped by generations of immigration. The message is hardly one that conveys a France confidently united in difference.

In fact, a year after the terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, France feels anything but united. The killing of 12 people at the magazine and four people at a kosher supermarket two days later prompted rallies of solidarity across the country, with four million taking to the streets in one day. But efforts to give the impression of 'France united' last January were rather misleading. The sentiment didn't quite echo everywhere. In Marseille at the time, I spoke to local Muslims who, while they abhorred the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo, felt disconnected from the 'Je Suis Charlie' slogan, celebrating a magazine they felt had repeatedly insulted their faith.

French media reported school children in hardscrabble suburbs with large immigrant populations elsewhere in the country rejecting the slogan for similar reasons.

France was to be knocked sideways again in November, with multi-pronged attacks, again in Paris, by militants claiming allegiance to Isil, which left 130 people dead.

The sense of threat still hangs in the air in Paris and other major cities like Marseille - where this week a Jewish teacher wearing a kippa, or skullcap, was attacked by a machete-wielding youth who claimed Isil sympathies. A national state of emergency declared in the aftermath of the November attacks remains, with 2,764 arrest warrants issued since mid-December. Heavily armed soldiers and police patrol the streets and there is a sense of wariness in crowded areas and on public transport.

Official rhetoric has been stark. France is at war and must prepare itself for the possibility of further strikes, President François Hollande warned grimly in his new year address.

But many fear a heavy-handedness in Hollande's actions under the state of emergency, one that could deepen France's already worrying social fragmentation and simmering tensions.

In yet another manifestation of the latter, a Muslim prayer hall in Corsica was ransacked last month by a mob yelling "Arabs out", after firefighters were attacked on a housing estate which is home to many immigrants.

Hollande's own party is bitterly divided over a proposed security law which would expand police powers and, most controversially, strip French citizenship from those with dual nationality in terrorism cases. Critics say the move would exacerbate existing fissures in a country where some 5pc of French people between 18 and 50 hold two passports.

Most of these are of north African origin and come from communities that form the backbone of France's Muslim population. Tellingly, the proposed law is supported by the far-right National Front, which made the most significant gains in its history in regional elections last month, even if it did not secure any seats in the final round due to tactical voting by supporters of the mainstream parties.

Several commentators have argued that Hollande's proposed plan to revoke citizenship, while hardly a deterrent against terrorists who are prepared to die for their cause, has faint echoes of the way French citizens of Jewish origin were treated under the Vichy regime during World War II.

They worry France is in danger of betraying fundamental values in the name of security when instead it should be focusing on deeper, more uncomfortable questions about why France can often appear to be several countries in one, divided along numerous faultlines.

The vexed questions of what France is, what it stands for, and what it means to be French have rarely looked more urgent. It will take much, much more than a poster campaign to unite a nation so divided.

Irish Independent

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